How bad schools got better

Twenty-five years ago, the public schools in Union City, New Jersey were so bad the state threatened to seize control. “Fear of a state takeover catalyzed a transformation,” writes David Kirp, a Berkeley professor,  in the New York Times.

From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

Union City is the sort of places where expectations are low:  Most students come from low-income, immigrant families. But, gradually, principals became educational leaders, teachers learned to work together and “parents were enlisted in the cause,” writes Kirp, a public policy professor at Berkeley who spent a year in Union City. The district’s “best educators were asked to design a curriculum.” Excellent teachers mentored the not-so-good teachers.

Union City decided to provide two years of pre-kindergarten classes that teach cognitive and noncognitive skills. Nearly every 3- and 4-year-old enrolls, Kirp writes.

One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).

. . . “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”

Union City High School was on the “needs improvement” list — until it improved. Principal John Bennetti is persuading students that education can be a ticket out of poverty.

On Day 1, the principal lays out the house rules. Everything is tied to a single theme — pride and respect in “our house” — that resonates with the community culture of family, unity and respect. “Cursing doesn’t showcase our talents. Breaking the dress code means we’re setting a tone that unity isn’t important, coming in late means missing opportunities to learn.” Bullying is high on his list of nonnegotiables: “We are about caring and supporting.”

Bennetti wants teachers to expect more of students and prepare them for success in college.

Turnaround districts like Union City aren’t “magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together,” Kirp writes. “Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.” He writes about Union City’s transformation in  Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama said he’ll work with states “to make high-quality preschool available to every child.”  I guess that means he’ll propose federal grants.

Obama is wrong when he says high-quality preschool is critical for all children. Children raised by educated parents tend to do well whether they go to preschool or not. By promising preschool for all, Obama diverts funding from the disadvantaged children who really do need a high-quality (and high cost) preschool education to develop language and behavioral skills that aren’t being taught at home.